Most sports fans probably think that by the time the NCAA Tournament reaches the Elite Eight that all of the upsets and surprises are over. But that’s not always the case. The cream doesn’t always rise to the top, especially with the pressure of a trip to the Final Four on the line.
Over the years, we’ve seen plenty of Cinderella stories go all of the way to the Final Four, meaning they have at least one more upset in them once the tournament reaches the final eight teams.
In case some of these games have gotten stuck in the back of your mind, let’s take a look at some of the biggest Elite Eight upsets in NCAA Tournament history.
no. 8 Villanova over no. 2 North Carolina, 1985
The 1985 Villanova team was one of the first true Cinderellas in the NCAA Tournament to go all the way and win a national championship. Rollie Massimino’s Wildcats barely survived the first round of the tournament, only to upset no. 1 Michigan in the second round and squeak past Len Bias and Maryland in the Sweet 16.
Waiting for Villanova in the Elite Eight was Dean Smith’s North Carolina, which included four future NBA players, highlighted by Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith. The Tar Heels were a safe bet to stop Villanova’s Cinderella run in its tracks, especially after the Wildcats only scored 17 points in the first half. However, everyone but Daugherty struggled while the Villanova offense came alive in the second half, outscoring the Tar Heels by 17 points in the second half to win 56-44. The upsets continued for Villanova, who beat Memphis State in the Final Four and Georgetown in the title game.
no. 8 Butler over no. 2 Florida, 2011
The Bulldogs couldn’t be considered much of a Cinderella story after playing in the national championship game the previous year. But the odds were once again stacked up against them after being given a no. 8 seed in 2011. Nevertheless, Brad Stevens once again had the magic touch in close games with the Bulldogs knocking off Old Dominion and Pitt in the first two rounds by a combined three points.
It looked like the Bulldogs had finally met their match in the form of a loaded Florida team that included Chandler Parsons and sharpshooters Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker. The Gators took control of the game in the second half, leading by as many as 11 points. But Shelvin Mack led the never-say-die Bulldogs on a furious comeback to force overtime. Butler carried that momentum into the overtime, winning 74-71 and eventually reaching the national championship game for the second straight year.
no. 9 Wichita State over no. 2 Ohio State, 2013
This is the run that put Wichita State on the map as one of the top mid-major programs in the country one year before they entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated. The Shockers beat Pitt comfortable in the first round and then made a major statement with a second-round upset over no. 1 Gonzaga. Wichita State was fortunate to get no. 13 La Salle in the Sweet 16, leading many to assume their run would end when they faced Ohio State in the Elite Eight.
The likes of Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas led an Ohio State team that had won eight in a row, including the Big Ten Tournament, heading into the Big Dance. But the Buckeyes were “Shocked” when they found themselves trailing Wichita State by 13 points at halftime. The Shockers built their lead all the way to 20 points before Ohio State started to chip away at the lead. However, Gregg Marshall’s team had more than enough to get to the finish line, holding on for the 70-66 win, although they came up a few points short in the Final Four against Louisville.
no. 6 Providence over no. 1 Georgetown, 1987
It’s not that Providence was a massive underdog, it’s that Georgetown was viewed as one of the favorites to win the national title behind consensus All-American Reggie Williams. Even after the Friar had knocked off no. 2 Alabama by 21 points in the Sweet 16, the odds were stacked against Rick Pitino’s team. While Providence had upset Georgetown in late January, the Hoyas had beaten the Friars by 11 points to close out the regular season and then beat them by 18 points in the semi-finals of the Big East Tournament. Georgetown then won its first three tournament games by double figures.
However, all of that just set up the Hoyas for a massive letdown. Future coaching legend Billy Donovan scored 20 points, doing most of his damage at the free-throw line. The Friars led by 17 points at halftime and never allowed Georgetown to get back in the game in the second half. Providence ended up winning 88-73, knocking off their Big East rivals to reach the Final Four, only to lose to fellow Big East rival Syracuse in the Final Four.
no. 10 Syracuse over no. 1 Virginia, 2016
Most critics didn’t even think Syracuse belonged in the NCAA Tournament this year. They were 19-14 heading into the Big Dance after losing five of their last six games. But the Orange made the tournament and made it count, dominating no. 7 Dayton in the first round. Syracuse got a little lucky by only having to beat no. 15 Middle Tennessee and no. 11 Gonzaga to reach the Elite Eight, where most thought they’d get what was coming to them against a Virginia team that had won 29 games and beat the Orange earlier in the season.
Alas, Syracuse continued to excel in the role of the national villain by coming up with one of the best comeback wins in tournament history. The Cavaliers held a 15-point lead with less than 10 minutes left and looked poised to cruise to an easy win. However, the Orange put on the full-court press and Virginia folded. Syracuse ended up going on a 25-4 run to take the lead with the Cavs scoring eight total points in the final 9:33 of the game. With the stunning win, the Orange advanced to the Final Four for the second time in four years in a most unlikely fashion.
no. 11 LSU over no. 1 Kentucky, 1986
In Eddie Sutton’s first season at Kentucky, the Wildcats were 32-3 heading into the Elite Eight and had gone 17-1 inside the SEC, plus three wins in the conference tournament. Three of those wins came against LSU, who barely snuck into the NCAA Tournament after going just 9-9 inside the SEC during the regular season. But the Tigers got hot when the tournament started, knocking off no. 6 Purdue, no. 3 Memphis State, and no. 2 Georgia Tech to set up their fourth meeting with Kentucky that season.
After losing three times to the Wildcats, LSU coach Dale Brown chose to throw a number of different looks at Kentucky defensively, doing everything possible to throw the Wildcats off their game. It seemed to work, as Kentucky was held under 60 points for just the second time that season. Meanwhile, the Tigers got at least 12 points from four different scorers to eke out a 59-57 win and advance to the Final Four over a team that had been dominant up to that point.
no. 11 VCU over no. 1 Kansas, 2011
After losing in the finals of the Colonial Tournament, it looked like VCU would be left out of the tournament entirely. However, they got a chance as one of the last four at-large teams and made the most of it. Shake Smart unleashed his “Havoc” system on the rest of the country, as the Rams sneaked past USC in the play-in game and then trounced no. 6 Georgetown and no. 3 Purdue to reach the Sweet 16, where they squeaked by no. 10 Florida State by a point. However, surely it was the end of the line for the Rams when they were matched up against Kansas in the Elite Eight. The Jayhawks were 35-2 heading into that game behind Tyshawn Taylor and brothers Marcus and Markieff Morris.
But Bill Self didn’t have enough time to prepare his team for VCU’s “Havoc” defense. The Rams took a 14-point lead into halftime and never looked back. Even when Kansas fought back in the second half to pull within two points, VCU had an answer and ended up winning 71-61. Before the tournament, the Jayhawks looked like a smart bet to win the national championship, but afterward, they were stunned to have lost and been outplayed by a no. 11 seed that nobody had heard of before the tournament started.
no. 11 George Mason over no. 1 UConn, 2006
For UConn fans, this will always be the game that got away. The Huskies were loaded with future NBA star Rudy Gay, as well as veterans like Josh Boone, Hilton Armstrong, and Marcus Williams. They were ranked in the top four all season and were 30-3 heading into this game. In fact, they were probably a wise choice to win it all heading into the Big Dance. However, George Mason behind head coach Jim Larrañaga took the tournament by storm after sneaking in as a no. 11 seed. The Patriots knocked off blue bloods like Michigan State and North Carolina before taking out Wichita State to reach the Elite Eight.
Despite some close calls against both Kentucky and Washington in the previous rounds, the Huskies were surely confident going up against an unknown like George Mason. But UConn never imposed its will or superior talent on the Patriots. George Mason just hung around, getting at least 10 points from all five of their starters, shooting 50% from the perimeter, and out-rebounding the Huskies. When the Patriots forced overtime, their confidence was sky high while UConn looked shocked and distraught. George Mason took the lead in overtime and never trailed from there on out, ultimately winning 86-84, reaching the Final Four for the first time after having never won a tournament game just a couple of weeks prior. More than a decade later, this upset is still shocking and UConn fans are no doubt still trying to figure out what went wrong for a team that probably should have won the national championship.